your mouth is lovely by Nancy Richler (HarperFlamingo), 350 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Nancy Richler tramps on some well-travelled turf -- you don't want to mess with Isaac Bashevis Singer -- but definitely holds her own in Your Mouth Is Lovely, an engaging story about life in the Jewish Pale in pre-revolutionary Russia.In spare, evocative prose, the novel tracks Miriam's journey from unwanted child to revolutionary activist through letters she's writing to her own daughter from prison. What sets this book apart from other stories of Jewish oppression in eastern Europe is its focus on women and their participation in the rebellions.
Many of these women are hopelessly conflicted about their roles as mothers -- and gossips and household managers -- and their aspirations for a future free of traditional constraints inside their communities and of anti-Semitism without.
Especially fascinating is the character of Tsila, Miriam's stepmother, now married to Miriam's natural father. She longs for the security of following Jewish law, yet is as good a scholar as any man (a role not really allowed for women). A deeply skilled dressmaker, she has more money-making potential then her husband. Though she's presented at first as a bit of a sourpuss, the most moving aspect of the story emerges as Tsila warms to her stepdaughter. Her pain as she loses her grip on Miriam is palpable.
Not that Richler ignores her male characters. We get Miriam's father, who still hasn't figured out what happened to his relationship with Miriam's birth mother; Miriam's soul-mate, Wolf; and Leib, a free-love-touting revolutionary who looks a lot like a precursor of the randy guys of the 60s.
An excellent Hanukkah gift.